By Deb Dagit
President, Deb Dagit Diversity LLC
The recent high-profile departures from the White House present us with yet another opportunity to reflect on how as a society we have come to tolerate the lack of basic respect and civility when employees at all levels are separated. The cringe-worthy Tweets, abrupt notifications, bullying, and soul-crushing character assassinations have become normative in our daily news cycle, and while far less public, separations in our organizations are not all that different.
As diversity and inclusion practitioners, most of us are responsible for monitoring and sometimes reporting talent-related metrics, including: who is hired, promoted, given development opportunities, considered high potential, as well as voluntary and involuntary terminations. I know I have witnessed questionable practices during my career as a practitioner internally and as a consultant regarding how people are let go, including:
- Confidential separation agreements with non-disclosures about the reasons for termination
- Ranking and rating sessions associated with small and large reductions in force that are influenced by who has the best relationships with and demonstrated loyalty to those in decision-making roles
- Performance calibration sessions that rely on subjective criteria of whether someone is depicted as a “rock star” or simply meeting expectations, thus ensuring some have a bit of an employment insurance policy if there are job cuts, while others do not
- Long service, high performers who are suddenly called out as not living up to job requirements and encouraged to “retire”
I have also observed turnover that is disproportionately higher among women, under-represented ethnic groups, people with disabilities and people older than 50 in higher pay ranges. Involuntary departures are coded as voluntary even if they were under duress, using euphemisms chosen to save face for both those who are targeted and managers who failed to retain hard to find diverse talent such as leaving for better career opportunities, work/life concerns, and health challenges.
In the words of the Simon and Garfunkel song, The Sound of Silence, “The words of the prophet are written on the subway walls, tenement halls…” the duo ask us how we can turn a blind eye and ear to those who are suffering from dehumanizing behavior. In a business, these words are instead written on legal documents and human resources forms. Do we have an obligation to recognize and leverage whatever situational power and privilege we have, to call out how people are treated during the traumatic life event of losing ones’ job? (Particularly if how it was handled is clearly out of alignment with the espoused values and mission of the company). If we see something egregious, and choose to say something, it will require enormous strength and courage. Sadly, all too often, many of our colleagues are likely to privately applaud and publicly condemn speaking this truth to power.
Perhaps we should take our cue from the high school students who are standing up to adults and social media trolls to fight for gun control reforms to make schools safer. Let’s gather the data we have access to, the authentic and compelling stories of lives turned upside down and self-esteem trampled, and make sure that our senior leaders cannot plead ignorance that they did not know what was happening on their watch, and ours.